8. Orientation

The directions of the wind


The orientation by  the four winds is very old, but its origin cannot be precisely indicated. The Greek seafarers used them and Erathosthenes, in his book ‘Geography’, mentioned the Boreas, Apeliotes, Notos and Zepyros. He subdivided the earth by parallel east-west and north-south lines and could  measure the circumference of the earth by these directions and the height of the sun.

Hipparchus of Nicaea (c. 165 – c. 127 BC) amended Erathothenes’ division of the earth – in sixty parts – by drawing ‘climata‘-lines at regular intervals (360 parts, the modern ‘degrees’). In that way, it was possible to locate every place on earth by co-ordinates. Ptolemy (AD 90 – 168) provided in his ‘Geography‘ the latitude and longitude of eight thousand places.

The importance of the winds was emphasized by Andronicus of Cyrrhus, who built, around 50 BC, the octagonal ‘Tower of the Winds’ in Athens, also called the ‘Horlogeion‘ (fig. 26).


Fig. 26 – The ‘Tower of the Winds’ or Horlogium in Athens (Greece). Photo in: BOARDMAN (1993).

Orientation is fairly well documented in the maritime and shipping history. Every ship leaving a harbor and sailing at an empty sea, away from the shoreline, is comparable with a human mind on a ‘tabula rasa‘: the observer has to invent some sort of dynamic structural framework for guidance. Alternatively, like Daniel BOORSTIN (1983, p. 47) rightly put it in his book ‘The Discoverers‘: ‘When people set out to explore the oceans, they found it more than ever necessary to know the heavens.’ But to approach the heaven in an orderly way, one has to take decisions over the type of division in a comprehensive composition.


Fig. 27 – This wooden quadrant was built by Paul Hainzel, Burgomaster of Augsburg, and a friend of Tycho Brahe. It is an illustration from Tycho Brahe’s work ‘Astronomia Instaurate Mechanica‘ (1598). Many types of quadrants were built during the development of navigation- and surveying-tools in the sixteenth century. A star was focused through the small rings E and D, and the angle could be read at the quarter-circle with a graduated scale (H). The whole contraption of the nineteen-foot radius quadrant and a brass scale could  turn from a platform. Without a reliable quadrant, it was impossible to fix any of the cardinal points of the sky.

The position and movement of the sun and the stars were the most obvious points of references in maritime orientation.  The sun comes up at a certain point, reaches it height and sinks to another point on the horizon. ‘The operative line was not that from N. to S., but that from E. to W’, said Eva TAYLOR (1937/1957, p. 23). ‘A seaman “oriented” himself by facing the north (the pole of heavens) and spreading out his arms to east and west.’ Instruments were made to measure angles. The simplest  one is the measuring staff, but more elaborated forms are the quadrant (fig. 27), the theodolite and the astrolabe (fig. 28). In the late sixteenth century, these instruments found their apex in the armillary, or a small-scale model of the universe.


Fig. 28 – The four parts of an astrolabe: 1. Mater. Round disc with graduation on the outer edge (limbus), divided in 360 degrees or 24 hours; 2. The planisphere or tympana. Tables for different pole-elevations; 3. Rete. Disk with fixed stars from Zodiac; 4. Alhidade (Al-hidada). Indicator turning around a fixed point (not shown here). The illustration to the lower right shows the backside of the astrolabe with additional tables. From a manual made for the Spanish king Alfonso the Sage (around 1300).

The astrolabe or ‘star-shooter’ is a quadrant to measure the height of stars compared to the earthly horizon (DREIER, 1979; LEHR, 1981). One of the oldest descriptions of the instrument is by Hermann the Lame from Reichenau (who died in 1054). Chaucer (1340? – 1400) wrote, in 1391, a ‘Treatise for the Astrolabium‘ for his ten-year old son Lewis. This is the oldest early scientific work in English. The drawings in fig. 28 were prepared for King Alfonso the Sage at the end of the thirteenth century.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth century, the use of the astrolabe was sporadic, but this changed drastically when the spirit of discovery took hold in the fifteenth century. Orontius Fine (1532) issued many treatises and construction rules in the sixteenth century, like the beautiful book ‘Protomathesis’.


Fig. 29 – This astrolabe is from the seventh tablet of the series ‘Sapihal-al-Afakiyah’ (pictures of the horizon), a description of a Persian astrolabe, constructed for Shah Husain Safawi, around 1700.

The seafarer could, apart from the sun and the stars, also rely on the winds as a sailing aid. ‘The Spanish sailors on Columbus’ crew’, says BOORSTIN (1983, p. 217) ‘thought of direction not as degrees of compass bearings but as ‘los vientos‘, the winds. Portuguese sailors continued to call their compass card a ‘rosa dos ventos’, a wind rose’. Before the general use of the compass a direction was understood to be a certain wind, blowing from a given direction.

Windroses flowered, even before the introduction of the compass, as detailed indicators of direction, based on a division of the circle in four, eight, twelve, sixteen or even thirty-two parts.  The ancient system of ‘winds’ (or ‘plagae‘) was essentially a system of division.

The Greek geographer Timosthenes, a direct predecessor of Erathosthenes, knew the so-called ‘twelve-wind’ system. TAYLOR (1937) noted – in an article over Matthew Paris’ ‘De Ventis‘ (written on the last folio of the ‘Historia S. Albani’, Cotton MSS. Nero D.5, dated after 1250):

The twelve-fold division, associated with the name of Aristotle, and later with that of the sea-admiral Timosthenes, is an astronomer’s system, harmonizing with the twelve hours of the day and of the night, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the twelve ‘houses’ used in prognostication, i.e. in general with the duodecimal numeration.’

The division is related to the 360 degrees circle and angles of 60, 30, 15 and 5 degrees, and therefore, finally, based on a combination of three- and fourfold division. The Romans, although lesser seafarers than the Greek, also use the twelve-division.

Erathosthenes abandoned the ‘twelve-wind system’ in favour of the ‘eight-wind system’, because it was too difficult for mariners (BROWN, 1949/1979 and HAPGOOD, 1966/ 1979). This may be true, but another consideration can be put forward: maybe this change came about by a shift in division thinking (from ‘triple-four’ to ‘dual-four’).

The eight-wind system (or, one step further, the sixteen fold division) was generally used on navigation charts known as portolan-maps. This particular type of map making flourished in the fourteenth century and was used by sailors (mostly in the Mediterranean) to chart their way from harbor to harbor. The maps were based on a sixteen-fold division (‘quadruple-four’) of the circle.


Fig. 30 – The construction of the eight-wind system of the Portolan Charts as given by Livengood, Estes and Woitkowski in HAPGOOD (1966/1979). A circle is bisected eight times, resulting in sixteen lines from the centre to the periphery at equal angles of 22,5 degrees. Horizontal and vertical lines through the intersections form a grid of sixteen squares. Geographical details, like a coastline, are marked within this grid.

The stages to construct this system by bisecting the circle four times (fig. 30) results in angles of 22,5 degrees (HAPGOOD, 1966/1979; p. 14/15). This procedure displays the ‘ratiocinationis quadrivium‘ (as mentioned earlier):

1. Division:  Four times division of a circle results in angles of 22,5 degrees.

2. Definition:   Horizontal and vertical lines are drawn from the intersections of the angle-lines with the circle. This results in a grid of sixteen squares, a theoretical framework.

3. Demonstration: Geographical landmarks are indicated on this grid.

4. Resolution: The procedure of sixteen directions – or ‘plagae‘ – within a theoretical framework filled with empirical data, enables an observer to known a location in a given context.

The aforementioned scheme has little to do with the elaborate mathematical projections, employed by later map makers like Gerard Mercator (1512 – 1594), Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598) and the Blaeu family to catch the spherical earth in a convenient flat plane. It is a strictly theoretical approach to the communication between an observer and the environment, based on an ‘a priori‘ definition of division. It has, simultaneously, a philosophical connotation, inherent to this choice. This aspect is much less obvious in the ‘scientific’ map making of later centuries.

It is important to realize that the orientations of the great Portuguese and Spanish discoverers originated in a theoretical division-framework and not in any form of mathematical projection.

Pedro de Medina published in 1545 in Valladolid (Spain) his book ‘Arte Del Navegar’ and gives a sketchy, but remarkably complete picture of the earth, encompassed by eight winds (fig. 31). Here we see the merger of a well-developed theoretical division-idea with an emerging mathematical approach based on projection. The book was translated in French, German, English and Italian and the map figures in the editions printed in Venice in the years 1554, 1555 and 1609, but not – due to rivalry – in the French edition.


Fig. 31 – The world with eight winds. An illustration of Pedro de Medina’s book ‘Arte Del Navegar‘ (Valladolid, 1545). This fairly complete world picture, in some sort of fantasy-projection, is surrounded by eight winds as indicators for the main directions.

The compass, although known from the twelfth century, was in its initial stages a rather crude instrument and did not contribute substantially to the geographical discoveries of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. In fact, it was surrounded by superstition and seen as a magical force. Alexander Neckam (1157 – 1217) could write: ‘When the mariners cannot see the sun clearly in murky weather, or at night, and cannot tell which way their prow is tending, they put a needle above a magnet which revolves until its point looks north and then stands still.’

There might have been other than ‘mechanical’ reasons for the initiation of the great journeys, which resulted in the discovery of new lands. It could well be that this urge was caused by a desire for delimitation, for finding the end of the earth. This spirit could only develop in a mind that valuates an awareness of boundaries in the first place. A world without fixed limits is incomprehensible – and unacceptable – in a mind that operates on the lower division-level. So towards the end of the fifteenth century – in the Renaissance as the identity crisis of the European cultural history – these limits had to be found at all costs. That might be the true reason Columbus set sail.

And maybe it would have been better for the credibility of oppositional thinking as Columbus had dropped of the earth and was forever vanished. Then the world would, at least, have a definitive end. The reality was different when, three decades later, the diminished crew of Fernao de Magelhaen – he died in 1521 on an island of the Philippines – returned home in 1522 with the physical proof of a round world. A world with no beginning and no end. The Captain-General had shown the four lights (meaning: get under way), but the great search for boundaries and limitation came to no avail: cyclic thoughts had to be with us for the years to come, they were part of our living world. The two-fold way of thinking took its first blow, despite the immediate success of material discoveries, rich booty and fulfillment.

The upheaval in mental images can be seen in many pictures of the early sixteenth century, indicating the tension between the lower and higher forms of division thinking and the confusion of old symbolism. Fig. 32 shows an example of a reversed interpretation of (Eriugena’s) ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’: the cosmic/heavenly elements (the winds) are four-fold and the earth (in T-O representation) is three-fold.


Fig. 32 – The four winds and the world. A symbolic representation of a four-fold cosmic (heavenly) division and a three-fold terrestrial (earthly) division. This is a reversal of the interpretation of Eriugena (in the ninth century). The highest power (in three-partition) is shifted from God to earth (man). From the Florentine Codex, Vol. II, fol. 236r. , completed 1577.

The Greek traveler and geographer Kosmas Indicopleustes already figured out the theoretical implications of a cyclic approach in the sixth century AD (fig. 33). He was fiercely against the idea, because it did not fit in the Biblical interpretation. The geographer tried – in his book ‘Topographia Christiana‘ – to shape the Christian and Biblical representations into a comprehensive world view (WOLSKA, 1962). The earth has, in Kosmas’ opinion, the shape of a disk and is on four sides surrounded by oceans. The sun is each day raised by angels. And a round shape is impossible because on the Youngest Day the antipodes would be unable to see the Lord come down from the clouds (DIJKSTERHUIS, 1950, I: 119 – 120).


Fig. 33 – The antipodes are seen here in a manuscript of the ‘Topographia Christiana‘ of Kosmas Indicopleustes, sixth century AD. This picture tried to prove the impossibility of a round earth. In:  Laur.  fol.  98v – Topographie Chretienne van Cosmas Indicopleustes. WOLSKA  (1962).

Later, in the thirteenth century, the picture of two observers leaving each other in opposite directions, was revived by Gauthier de Metz and Vincent of Beauvais just to prove the spherical shape of the earth (fig. 34). The late fourteenth-century French bishop Nicole Oresme went even a step further: ‘Suppose that Plato leaves Athens heading westward on his way to circling the world, and Socrates does the same heading eastward. They return after three years, coming from the opposite directions. Now, did Plato, Socrates and the Athenians, who stayed behind, have the same time or not?’ He also knew the answer, long before the establishment of time zones and the international data-line: Plato would have lived one day longer than the Athenians and Socrates one day less.


Fig. 34 – Two observers would meet each other, if they set out in the opposite direction on a round earth: Gautier de Metz shows, in the thirteenth century, the consequences of a round earth. This picture is of the printed version of Vincent of Beauvais’ influential book ‘Speculum maior‘. (In: HARLEY, J.B. & WOODWARD, D. (1987) and Ch. XVII of: VINCENTIUS  (1481/1979)

The directions of the winds were gradually changed by magnetic bearings in the sixteenth century, but the main division in four directions (north, east, south and west) continued to be the structural setting for any orientation by a traveler or observer. It is now often forgotten that the four-division of the winds represents an ancient orientation system, which had philosophical implications as well.

The last, great book to offer a prominent position to the wind-directions is the publication by Cesare Cesariano (1484 – 1543) of Vitruvius’ ‘De Architectura’ (Como, 1521). All classical ideas about direction, in particular in relation to the building of cities and buildings, are brought together in this book (fig. 35).


Fig. 35 – The division of the wind rose in ‘Ventorum regiones‘ as given in Vitruvius’ book ‘De Architectura‘, published by Cesare Cesariano (Como, 1521). In the classical writings of Vitruvius, the direction was found by means of a sundial. Note the central spine for casting a shadow from the sun. Meridies (South) is, for this reason, placed at the top. In: KRINSKY (1969).

The ‘Cosmographia‘ of Peter Apianus (1495 – 1552) was edited and published in Antwerp by Gemmae Frisius in 1553. Apianus treated all sorts of cosmological and geographical divisions: a ‘Schema praemissae divisionis‘ with the ‘Circulis sphaerae‘ in Chapter III (folio 3) elaborates on ‘De Sex Circulis Sphaerae‘, ‘De Quatuor Circulis Minoribus‘ and ‘De Quinque Zonis‘. No particular division is prominent. Chapter (XV, folio 24) deals with the winds (De Ventis) and gives an illustration of a ‘quadratum nauticum‘ (fig. 36).


Fig. 36 –  A ‘Quadratum Nauticum‘. Example of a combination of ‘rosa dei venti‘ and magnetic bearings on a compass described in the ‘Cosmographia‘ (f. 24) of Petrus Apianus and Gemmae Frisius (1553). This edition has revolving diagrams on verso of l. 8 and 11, and on recto of l. 30 and 57. Inscriptions on these diagrams, also on some of the illustrations in the text, are in French. In: GUNTHER (1976).

The classical division in ‘rosa dei venti‘ is moved to the outer edge, while the more modern, ‘scientific’ division fills up the central part, with the four primary direction (Septentrio, Oriens, Meridies, Occidens) in a circle. This ‘quadratum nauticum‘ was used in combination with a magnet, and the orientation is therefore to the North. Map making since the sixteenth century has adopted this orientation (at the expense of the orientation to the East). It is another sign of the increased influence of the material elements (earth) over the immaterial (heaven).

The directions of the wind, and the way they are treated over the ages, provide a narrative of observation, which is closely related to the history of division-thinking. The roots are firmly embedded in the characteristics and relations of the four elements. Air and water are the elements of the multitude, whereas fire and earth are thought of as unities.

Orientation in the multitude is far more difficult than to establish a direction in a unity. The central fire of the sun is an easy fixture, just as the magnetic pole is a sure point of reference, but to find a way in the sky or over the waves of the sea is a different matter. Some frame of reference has to be developed. The stars and the winds have provided the material for the building of a mental structure, which could support the observation and direction-finding in the multitude or the unknown. And in the end it was not only the seafarer that benefited from that knowledge, but everybody who wanted to chart a route through life.

BOARDMAN,  John (Ed.)(1993). The Oxford History of Classical Art.  Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-81433386-9

BOORSTIN, Daniel J. (1983). The Discoverers. Random House, New York. ISBN 0-394-40229-4

BROWN, Lloyd A. (1949/1979). The Story of Maps. Dover Publications, New York.

DIJKSTERHUIS, Eduard J. (1950). De Mechanisering van het wereldbeeld. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam. ISBN 90 290 1570 5

DREIER, Franz A. (1979). Winkelmessinstrumente. Vom 16. bis zum frühen 19. Jahrhundert. Ausstellung im Kunstgewerbemuseum vom 9. November 1979 bis 23. Februar 1980, Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin.

GUNTHER,  Robert T.  (1976). Astrolabes of the World. Vol. I. The  eastern astrolabes. The Holland Press, London

HAPGOOD, Charles H. (1966/1979). Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age. Turnstone Books, London. ISBN 855500 018 X

KRINSKY, Carol Herselle (Intr.)(1969).  Vitruvius.  De Architectura.   Cesare Cesariano (Como,  1521). Wilhelm Fink Verlag,  München.

LEHR,   Andre  (1981). De  Geschiedenis  van  het  Astronomisch  Kunstuurwerk. Martinus Nijhoff, Den Haag. ISBN 90-247-9082-4

TAYLOR, Eva G.R. (1937). The ‘De Ventis‘ of Matthew Paris. Pp. 23 – 26 in: Imago Mundi 2. A Periodical Review of Early Cartography. Edited by Leo Bagrow and Edward Lynam. Henry Stevens, Son & Stiles, London.

– (1957). The Haven-Finding Art. History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook. Hollis & Carter, London/Institute of Navigation.

VINCENTIUS (Vincent of Beauvais). The Mirrour of the World (Westminster, 1481)(1979). Number 960. The English Experience. Its Record in Early Printed Books published in facsimile. Walter J. Johnson, Inc. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ltd., Amsterdam/Norwood, N.J. ISBN 90 221 0960 7

WOLSKA, Wanda (1962). La Topographie Chretienne de Cosmas Indicopleustes. Theologie et Science au VIe Siecle. Bibliothèque Byzantine – Etudes 3. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.

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